Imagine someone discovering a settlement in the UK 1,000 years from now. Not a huge, bustling city like London; more Milton Keynes, or Derby. Somewhere that offers a very everyday view of urban life in that place and time. That’s what this exhibition does, and it does it very well, through an overarching domestic theme highlighted by its design as a typical home of the time, complete with kitchen, toilet, and even a garden.
In these spaces, 250 exhibits quietly and memorably evoke the ordinary experience of life in these times. Out in the street along with the bakery and the butcher’s shop lies the heartbreaking cast of a little dog, and there in the entrance to the house he appears again – this time in a floor mosaic. All around, equally absorbing exhibits paint a wonderfully real picture of the two towns just before Mount Vesuvius buried them in AD79: from carbonised food and stunning wall paintings to – this being the Romans – lots of erotica (watch the kids delight in spotting the cake tray figurine with the huge cock, or the phallic wind chime).
This isn’t to say ‘Life and Death…’ avoids the tragedy and horror of the eruption; a section on the catastrophe has just enough casts and interpretative material to lend insight and poignancy without tipping over into the mawkish or gratuitous. Through this thoughtful mix of practical and beautiful, prosaic and extraordinary, the British Museum has created an experience that’s almost as good, and definitely as informative, as visiting the real thing.